Manitoba History: Review: George Woodcock, The Canadians

by Lovell Clark
Department of History, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 2, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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This is a very fine book. The interesting and well written narrative is accompanied by numerous illustrations, some of them in colour. Nearly every page has an illustration or portrait on its margin, along with a concise explanatory or biographical note.

I found few errors, mostly minor The Quebec Conference was in 1864, not 1865 (p. 108): the same picture appears on pp. 72 and 112, the first time without a caption; Social Credit remained in power in Alberta until 1971, not 1968 (p. 183); the vote for women was won first in Manitoba, not Alberta (p. 184); demagogic is misspelt on p. 211; on p. 219 we are told that the Yukon has 70,000 population and on p. 220 that it has 20,000; Martin Frobisher obviously did not visit Baffin Island in 1576 and again in 1758 (p. 228); adherence is misspelt on p. 243; the picture on p. 248 lacks a caption; and the Icelanders do not live in northern Manitoba (p. 255).

Mr. Woodcock has divided his book into three parts: “Canadian Origins,” “A Pattern of Regions and “A Canadian Identity.” The three chapters in Part I deal with the original inhabitants, the explorers, and the history of the country generally Then in Part II follow chapters on each of the seven regions, viz., Newfoundland, the Atlantic Provinces, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairie Provinces. British Columbia, and the North. Four chapters comprise Part Ill and are entitled “Unity without Uniformity,” “The Life of the Arts,” “Canadians at Leisure,” and “Canada: Identity Crisis.”

It is all exceedingly well done. The treatment is historical as well as contemporary, and what Mr. Woodcock has to say about each of the seven regions is always interesting and sometimes provocative. One is particularly grateful for the survey of the literature and art of each region, subjects on which the author is very well informed. The treatment is of course sketchy and fragmentary but nevertheless in a relatively short compass the reader has learned much about Canada’s history and its people.

When a book has accomplished so much it seems mere cavilling to take issue with any of it, but it would be unfair to Mr. Woodcock not to take cognizance of some of the theories which he has advanced. To begin with, he has replaced the familiar view of Canada as the product of two “founding peoples,” the French and the British, with an alter-native view which, to say the least, is novel. Instead of the two founding peoples, he postulates what are apparently two contrary tendencies—a nationalizing one represented by the explorer-fur trader and a regional one represented by the settler. In his own words:

... the essential task of Canadian politics. applied to the nation as a whole rather than to its separate parts. has been to reconcile the two heritages—the explorer and the settler Are we to see Canada in terms of its regions primarily? Or are we to see it in the sub-continental terms of the fur traders and the C.P.R. and the C.B.C. and the machinery of central government? Which is the true federalism?

One is tempted to retort that without the explorer-fur trader (and the C.P.R. and the central government) there would be no settler and of course no regions and no Canada either. But Mr. Woodcock makes clear where he thinks the answer lies. “Canada is a country where the regions are all-important:” Indeed, he asserts that “an amazing number” (evidently not a majority) of Canadians think of themselves as “... Quebecois and even as Newfoundlanders or British Columbians before they think of themselves as Canadians.” This is why the author plunges into an exploration of the seven regions which he has delineated, in search of clues to the Canadian identity.

The explorations are welcome for their own sake, as already noted, but it would be idle to pretend that Mr. Woodcock is notably successful in his search for clues to the elusive Canadian identity. It was not likely that he would be, given his major premise that the regions are all-important. He is so intent upon revealing the diversity of Canada (in terms of its regions) that he fails to find any basis for its unity. There is no “Pattern” in his regions and no unity in his diversity. When he asks himself what it is that Canadians share in common, he comes up with an answer that does not derive from his regional explorations but is out of the blue as it were. His rather commonplace answer is that what Canadians share is the “moral ambience” which is expressed in their religious life, their daily human relations, and in the social, economic and political aspects of their life.

This leads the author into a rambling discussion of the religious element in Canadian life, of the decay of the Puritan work ethic, of whether Canada is a classless society (no, it isn’t), of whether there is real social and economic equality (no, there isn’t), of whether we have ruling elites (yes, we have, as John Porter has shown), of the peculiarities of our political system which differs from both the British and the American, and so on, none of it very startling or illuminating. Mr. Wood-cock makes many good points while wrestling with the problem of the Canadian identity, and in particular he discerns a number of hopeful developments towards self-awareness and maturity among Canadians in recent decades, but the results of his regional explorations scarcely come up to expectations. Canada is obviously much more than a country where the regions are all-important. It has a Oneness which is just as real as its parts, as Professor W. L. Morton has argued in a recent essay, “Canada, the One and the Many.”

Mr. Woodcock’s obsession with regionalism warps his judgment about much else. While recognizing the unique blend of private and public enterprise which has characterized Canada’s development, he obviously deplores the “immense governmental apparatus” which the public sector entails, and he looks forward to “increasing devolution and decentralization, the direction of true confederacy” Mr. Woodcock evidently assumes that a better world is around the corner once the central government has withered away and we are left alone with just the powerful multinational corporations and the petty provincial potentates. The grounds for this naive faith are nowhere set forth.

Mr. Woodcock insists that the founding fathers did not create a “centralized nation-state” but a “confederation of former colonies who entered into a compact of limited unification.” We are, in short, a “confederal society” and our present troubles arise from the attempt “to create an over-riding authority instead of a system of co-ordination between equal partners” It is this dubious chain of reasoning which leads Mr. Woodcock to declare:

Therefore I regard Pierre Trudeau as perhaps the leading enemy of a workable Canadian unity and Rene Levesque as perhaps its greatest friend. since he has awakened us to the perils of an artificial constitutional unity that will not take into account the various—though not always different—needs and aspirations of Canada’s regions.

This is plain silly and perhaps should not be belaboured. Mr. Woodcock has said so many sensible and worthwhile things that his rather cranky editorializing on one or two matters can be forgiven. One suspects that he is a philosophical anarchist at heart and that this explains the few quirks in an otherwise admirable book.

Page revised: 23 April 2010